Otters in the pond!

Wild Ways

I was in the middle of putting new sheets on the bed, one of our cat Dumela’s favorite things. She loves hiding under the sheets as I make the bed. But this time, I had to abandon our game midway. Bucko had just called out to me, “Otters in the pond!”

There’s nothing I enjoy more than watching otters. And right in our own backyard. How perfect! I rushed outside with my camera and sure enough, down by the outflow the water surface was ruffled, and then an otter head. Then two, then three.

I settled down on a bench where I hoped I could view the pond inconspicuously. Bucko had a similar idea and settled on a chair at our desk. We both sat perfectly still and silent. Otters don’t have very good eyesight and they didn’t seem to notice us. They were too busy diving in the water, bobbing to the surface and playfully wrestling with each other. It looked to us like a parent and two adolescents; one was a bit larger and the two smaller ones were the ones rough-housing with each other. It made sense to us.

Before long, the otters headed over to our side of the pond, to the area where they usually enter and leave the pond. My bench was nearby and I stayed perfectly still, hoping they wouldn’t notice me, but soon my snapping camera gave me away. Otters might be nearsighted, but their ears are excellent and the clicks drew their attention to me. The first two on the bank looked right at me, but it didn’t stop them from completing their mission. It is important to otters that they mark their comings and goings for other otters to find and they do this by leaving their scat at particular, key locations. That’s where their keen sense of smell comes in. It’s been proven that otter scat contains scent messages that identify individuals, their sex and most likely when they were there, as the scent disintegrates over time. Other otters find these scent piles and use the information to find or avoid other otters in the area.

Even though they knew I was nearby – one after another – they performed their ritual scenting and scatting dance, tail raised and hind feet scuffling as I snapped away. After all three had added their scent to the community heap, they rushed into the woods and out of sight to me again.

It was just luck we happened to see the otters on this visit to the pond. When we finally noticed them, they had already traveled to the far side of the pond, so there’s no telling how long they were there before Bucko spotted them. We only had maybe ten minutes of otter watching before they were gone to us again.

We know by keeping track of their scent piles at the forest edge that they visit us maybe once a week. We must be at the fringe of their territory. Without tagging them and following them with GPS or radio-telemetry, we will never really know their numbers or movements on Amelia Island.

River otters are often seen on the Egans Creek Greenway, at the Fernandina Harbor Marina near Atlantic Seafood, and in golf course ponds around the area. We saw our otters around noon, but earlier in the morning, two otters were out and about and reported on the Summer Beach golf course.

Otters travel long distances on land, and more than likely the otters on the island intermix with each other. If you want to see otters, you have to spend a lot of time in the areas where they frequent and then just get lucky. Or you have to live on a pond in otter territory and keep your eyes on the windows. It doesn’t always work, but every now and again we get a good sighting like this one.

With the otters gone from view, I turned back to the house and remembered poor Dumela. Was she still hiding under the sheets and waiting for my return to her favorite game? No, there she was, sitting by the window and watching Bucko and I watching otters. Just another day in the life of the Turley household.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.

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